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20090414-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven-by-jeffrey-overstreetSharing cigarettes, two boys recline on a sun-baked rock high above their village. Here, close to heaven, they’re able to forget their troubles and enjoy the view.

A gunshot jolts them from their reverie. Down among the technicolor trees, a hunter blasts at a bird with his rifle. He hits his mark, but then wanders off without claiming it.

Bewildered, the boys descend and find the bird. Why did the hunter leave it behind? They cook it over a campfire, only to find that it tastes terrible. So that’s why he abandoned it. But why did he shoot it in the first place?

This scene frames central thematic questions of Reha Erdem’s celebrated 2006 film Times and Winds. What explains the disparity between the glory we see in the heavens and the senseless cruelty we witness on the ground? What turns dreaming boys into bitter, violent men? Is God watching? Doe he care?

Set in a remote Turkish village south of the site of ancient Troy, Times and Winds weaves together stories of two boys, Ömer and Yakup, and a girl named Yildiz––pre-teens caught between heaven and earth, wonder and suffering. From high viewpoints, they watch magnificent pageants of sunlight and storm play out on the stage of their village and the sea. (Cinematographer Florent Herry captures breathtaking drama in the clouds. I suspect he’ll hear from Terrence Malick soon.)

But then these children are drawn back down to earth, to lives full of unsettling emotions, burdensome responsibilities, and cruel adults.

Most viewers will have no trouble feeling sympathy for these children as the troubles of adolescence frighten and confuse them. It’s amusing to watch Yakup dream of marrying his pretty schoolteacher. And the children laugh at the donkeys and dogs in heat. But it’s no laughing matter when Yildiz, awakened by noise from her parents’ bedroom, finds them making love. As if she’s witnessed some violent act, she flees back to her blankets, shaken.

And why shouldn’t they view sex as brutal, when their fathers constantly assert power over their loved ones and each other?

Yakup recoils when he sees his grandfather punish his father for laziness and incompetence. He’s stung more deeply when he finds out his father’s a peeping tom.

Ömer’s father, the village imam, openly despises him for not living up to expectations, while his mother scorns him for failing where his cherubic younger brother succeds. It’s not entirely surprising when Ömer starts plotting a murder.

I’m confounded by these men who recklessly abuse and humiliate their boys without any thought of the consequences. When the town’s shepherd, an orphan named Davut, is brutally beaten by his guardian for pocketing a few nuts from the bushes, the town elders question the man. He shrugs, dismissive. “Isn’t what I’ve done fatherly?” And it’s excruciating to see poor Yildiz begin to understand the troubling future that awaits her in this patriarchal Muslim culture.

These scenes bring back a question that has haunted me since my own adolescence: How much has my view of God been determined by the behavior of my father? My parents have shown nothing but steadfast love and patience for my brother and me. Is that why I’ve never had that experience so common to believers—“a crisis of faith”? Clearly, prayer and belief will be a very different experience for these battered Muslim children who have no frame of reference for a gracious authority. Is it presumptuous to suspect that I have some advantage in trusting God? Or will their hardships teach them to wrestle questions of faith more passionately?

Just as Arvo Pärt’s solemn orchestration runs ponderously through this film, so the consequences of cyclical, familial violence weigh heavily on Erdem’s mind. But his vision is not without glimmers of hope.

Like Malick, Erdem hears the alluring call of Eden in the natural world all around. When Yakup delivers fresh bread to the beautiful schoolteacher he adores, or when that teacher loans Yildiz a special book, both children walk away smiling and let the leaves of a low-hanging bough brush their faces as if they’re receiving a blessing. (It’s worth noting that the teacher gives Yildiz a volume titled Çalıkuşu, a story of female empowerment set in a traditional, patriarchal society. Education is a source of hope too.)

But these bright occasions of kindness seem fleeting in Erdem’s view. Herry’s camera worries along behind the children like a fretting guardian angel. At intervals, the camera slows down, giving us a God’s-eye-view of each child lying half-buried in leaves, flowers, dust, or other debris.

These meticulously composed still-life images are mysteriously beautiful and yet troubling. What do they signify? Are the children napping? Narcoleptic? Are these troubling flash-forwards to some horrible tragedy?

I suspect they’re symbolic, suggesting the incremental burial of these vulnerable youth, the many deaths that they suffer on the road to adulthood with all of its burdens and unsettling mysteries.

At the film’s conclusion, Ömer’s ascends from the troublesome earth back to the skies, as if gasping for air. Below, one of the five daily prayers rings out from the village minaret. (The film’s Turkish title translates “Five Times.”) Whether or not he’s succeeded in his murderous designs, that hardly matters. He’s torn between his hatred for his father and a bond of responsibility stronger than circumstantial strife. Trembling with repressed turmoil, he weeps like a kettle that boils.

The tremulous appeal from the village minaret might as well be creation’s cry to a heavenly father for grace: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I’m reminded of the roar of the beast at sunrise in Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light. All creation groans.

Has my parents’ steadfast love made it more difficult for me to “work out my salvation with fear and trembling”? I don’t know. But Ömer’s struggle makes me fear for children like him, whose only example of fatherhood comes from men with hard hands and harder hearts.


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